On the thirteenth of February 1748, the Lady Lovibond set sail from Greenwich for Porto, in Portugal. She would never arrive.
The alarum bell hollered through the night in Deal harbour, pulling the lifeboat crew out of their beds. Cursing the loss of a pleasant Saint Valentine’s Eve celebration with their wives, they pulled on their clothes and ran down the beach, where the rowing boats were moored. A ship was in distress on the Goodwin Sands. They could see here, even in the dark of the night, a three-masted schooner caught in the treacherous sandbank that had swallowed so many ships before her. The lifeboats were pushed out into the water and the rescue crews rowed like demons, ploughing through the sea to save the ship that even now was slipping from view, under the waves.
Except that the ship was not disappearing under the waves. It was simply disappearing. Now that the crew sailed closer, they realized that there was something strange about this ship. For one thing, she was very old fashioned. This was 1848. What was she doing with a figurehead at the front? Perhaps it was just a trick of the moonlight but the ship seemed to be luminous, glowing green. Finally, there were no cries of a crew in distress. There was only silence, as the fluorescent old-fashioned ship faded into the darkness, leaving the lifeboats to turn around and row back to land, lest they too were caught in the deadly grip of the Goodwin Sands.
A hundred years earlier to the day, a three-masted schooner sat in the wharf at Greenwich, making ready to sail. Her name was written along her side: Lady Lovibond. Her destination was Porto in Portugal and Captain Simon Reed was in a good mood. He had a fine crew under him: The mate was John Rivers, with whom he had shared many a voyage. The helmsman was Robert Edwards, a Maidstone man and an experienced sailor. Most excitingly of all, the new Missis Reed was to come aboard, the beautiful Annette, with whom Simon had made it legal shortly before Christmas.
Here she was now, just coming aboard. The Captain maintained his decorum, remaining on the stern, allowing Rivers to greet her and escort her to her cabin, as though she were an ordinary passenger. Captain Reed had every confidence in his crew to keep their glances respectful and their smutty but not inaccurate thoughts to themselves.
Yet, had he not been quite so distracted by his wife’s dark beauty and by his own efforts not to seem distracted, he would have noticed that his men were neither leering nor sniggering. They were worried. An old sailor’s superstition has it that it is bad luck to bring a woman aboard ship and the crew of the Lady Lovibond were secretly aghast that their Captain could have been so selfish as to endanger them for the sake of giving his wife a Saint Valentine’s Eve treat and a Portuguese honeymoon.
Also unhappy was John Rivers. Did Simon, even after all these years, know him so poorly? How could he make him greet Annette, escort her to her cabin, make her comfortable and exchange pleasantries with her? Did he not know that Rivers had loved her first? No, “loved” was too genteel a word. He had lusted after her. She had been his all-dominating obsession. Even now, though she was a married woman, he could not help himself but to gaze upon her dress, his eyes shredding it down to her corset, cleaving to that waist that he could only imagine and enjoyed imagining. What was that glance she gave him, as he opened the door to the Captain’s cabin? Was it a loving glance? Was it not too late? Might there be a possibility of breaking the seventh commandment? He was certainly breaking the tenth.
“You’ve gone red, John,” she smiled.
She called him John!
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, sir,” she chided him, with cruel gentleness. “We’re not in Portugal yet.”
And with that she shut the door. She shut the door! She shut the door in his face! John Rivers turned and walked back onto the deck.
The ship cast off. The crew waved goodbye to their families on the quay. Edwards took the helm. The Captain ostentatiously avoided his wife and Rivers seethed quietly. The Lady Lovibond glided out of the Thames estuary and around the Isle of Thanet. Her route would take her past the Goodwin Sands and night was falling. Edwards, however, had navigated this passage often enough. The ship was in only hypothetical danger.
There was a knock on the door. Missis Reed opened it to see the mate standing outside, his eyes burning with passion.
“Annette, your husband is on the stern. We have time alone together.”
“What on Earth are you insinuating, sir?”
“Come, Annette, you –“ he began but he never finished whatever he meant to say. His heart took over and he lunged towards her, his lips aiming for hers but her fist’s aim was equally good and in the opposite trajectory. Bloodied, the mate blundered backwards out of the cabin, while Annette slammed the door.
Captain Reed and Mister Edwards barely noticed as Mister Rivers came up to the stern. Their backs were turned, as he slid a marline-spike from its rope. The helmsman heard a fleshy thud and just managed to see the Captain sinking to the floor when a sharp heavy pain cracked on the back of his own head, sending shockwaves through his nervous system.
John Rivers looked at the two bleeding supine bodies on the boards. Were they dead? He did not care. Annette was his now. He dropped the marline-spike and stomped below again. No one knows how far his concupiscence took him, for, without a helmsman, the Lady Lovibond slid into the channels amongst the Goodwins. Sooner or later, those greedy Sands found her and swallowed her whole. No one survived.
Yet the Lady Lovibond was seen again, shimmering green on the night before Saint Valentine’s, 1798. Fifty years after that, the lifeboats of Deal made their futile attempt to rescue a ship in distress, a century too late. In 1898 and again in 1948 the phantom vessel sailed and sank again off the Kentish coast.
Except that, obviously, it did no such thing. There never was a Lady Lovibond. No ship of that name is recorded in Lloyd’s Register and the earliest trace of the tale is in a column in the Daily Chronicle, published, as it happens, on Saint Valentine’s Day in 1924. The fact that no witness to Rivers’s crimes could have survived to report them should have made the reader instantly suspicious. Even the very name of the ship is a giveaway suggesting that its repetitious amorous theme is more than a coincidence: “Lady Love-bound”. The 1948 sighting was presumably a case of expecting the expected and it is hardly surprising that no sightings were reported in 1998.
What is true is that thousands of ships have sunk in the sands between Sandwich and Deal and thousands upon thousands of men have lost their lives. The Lady Lovibond, Reed, Rivers, Edwards and Annette might not be among them but perhaps, if there were a shimmering spectral ship drifting through the night above that greedy graveyard, one should not be too surprised.